This thesis will prove how the male domestic servant shows a conservative evolution of class freedom through early American films. As an individual thrust into a liminal sphere, these characters paradoxically become a character type for both keeping class-consciousness as well as breaking up notions of class, albeit in a slow process. In comedy, domestic male servants have always been on duty to help their masters while also becoming sources of mischief as tricksters. In early American films, these characters embody the anxiety of a classless body of men who become scapegoats, trickster-figures, and mask-wearing sages in order to survive—attracting as many functions as possible in order to help society question notions of class. Although butlers and valets have existed for several centuries, the Victorian era molded the butler into a marginal existence, trapping this servant into a liminal, and therefore unlikable, sphere. Comedic writers in the Victorian era played the anxiety up—presenting butlers and valets as pompous and unintelligent scapegoats placed in texts to make their masters look good while becoming invisible themselves. Yet, by the time the stereotype reached America through P. G. Wodehouse, the butler became a trickster figure—ready to use the Victorian code as a way to gain monetary compensation and control of the private domain. Jeeves does in fact receive his desires, but he resorts back to set codes—becoming a character that subverts and maintains class structure simultaneously. Charlie Chaplin's butler in City Lights does the same in film. As the overly serious foil, Chaplin's butler controls the class hierarchy by keeping Chaplin away from his master; yet, the butler does this by copying his master's actions, putting himself on the same level as his master. It is only through Sturges films that butlers become relatively free from subordination and even more multivalent as these films delve into class reality versus desire. These butlers and valets continue to play the part of the Victorian butler, but they also become the pivotal characters that move plots in their intended course—becoming fatherly and less anxiety-ridden—creating a freedom unknown to their predecessors.
College and Department
Humanities; Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Smith, Katie, "Liminal Butlers: Discussing a Comic Stereotype and the Progression of Class Distinctions in America" (2007). Theses and Dissertations. 1286.
liminal butler character type Twentieth Century Comedy Film